Life of Brian
Profile by Sean McQuaid
Brian Burke is a man who has found his niche. While his expressionist paintings hang in far-flung locations ranging from New York to San Francisco, the artist himself is comfortable hanging out in downtown Charlottetown-whenever he's not painting at his country home, that is. For Burke, the quiet life is picture-perfect.
An Islander by birth, Burke was always interested in drawing-from the time he was three years old to his eventual enrollment in Holland College. He studied commercial design there, and started painting as a student at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design. Was he an inspired student?
"Not really," he admits. "I didn't know what I wanted to do." At the time, he says, painting was considered unfashionable-an artistic dead end. Burke drifted back to PEI, where he says he "didn't really do too much" until 1981.
Burke's big break reads like a lost episode of Cheers: he was a regular at a local bar called the Dundee Arms, where he settled his escalating bar tab by doing sketches for the owner. This forced him back into regular artistic practice.
Shortly thereafter, a chance encounter with old Holland College acquaintance Henry Purdy led to Brian pitching some work. Purdy liked it, and offered him a solo exhibition.
That first show was a surprising commercial and critical success-and as such, the first of many successful exhibitions. Without realizing it, Burke had found a career.
"I just wanted to do as little as possible to get by," he shrugs. "[The success] was just icing."
Burke's concern is the art, which he tries to instill with a sense of narrative and implied drama. He also tries to explore certain recurring themes, often on a variety of levels.
"As much as I hate to admit it," he says, "I seem to be working in a series format. What I used to resolve in one painting now takes two or three paintings until I satisfy myself."
One example of Burke's thematic approach is his current "Mister Man" exhibition at the Confederation Centre. Its underlying theme is authority figures-actual or supposed-something Burke has a self-professed aversion to.
That aversion to authority may fuel Burke's relative indifference to the business end of art, which he regards as a necessary evil. "I like to [insulate] myself from it," he says, "be anonymous, just do the work, send the work out, let the work be my proxy."
Burke's paintings are effective proxies, and he is grateful for his audience-especially those who purchase his paintings. "That's what keeps people like me going," he says.
There's an even greater motivational factor, though. "You have to just love paint," he says, "and what paint can do. That's very important."
In fact, it's the act of painting-not the product-that fascinates him. "When a painting's finished," he says, "it's finished. In dealing with it, you've exorcised it." As such, analysis of his work holds no interest for him. "When I'm pressed into it, everything I say sounds banal."
Burke will comment enigmatically about his next series of paintings, though. "I'm really happy about it," he says with a flash of coy enthusiasm. "It's called The Last Dance, and that's all I'll tell you."